COMMENT: Indian food regulator FSSAI has big ambitions, but is it biting off more than it can chew?
In the past month alone we’ve had new developments regarding GM, fortification, honey, packaged foods and edible oils.
And just before that, there was the launch of the much-publicised 'Eat Right Movement', which aims to nudge food firms into helping to curb India's alarming rates of non-communicable diseases.
There is clearly an urgency among officials to improve the quality and effectiveness of India's rules, both to bring them up to international
standards and to meet the country’s severe nutritional deficiencies – both malnutrition and over-nutrition.
But the question that remains is are they capable of delivering on their ambition to create a ‘One Nation, One Food Law’ spanning safety, testing, labelling, licensing and standards?
At the turn of the year, the signs didn’t look good when FSSAI came under fire from the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), which listed the shoddy state of food-testing labs, a lack of standards for regulating some food items, delays in issuing licences and financial lapses among its grievances.
The auditor said it had found "systemic inefficiencies, delays and deficiencies in the framing of various regulations and standards, amendments to regulations in violation of the Act and the specific direction of the Supreme Court”.
Countering the CAG’s findings, Pawan Agarwal, the FSSAI’s chief executive, stood firm, claiming the report only covered the period up to 2016 and that: “The CAG report should… be seen in the context of the huge and complex task at hand. The fact is that the FSSAI is a new and evolving organisation and it faces severe constraints of manpower and resources.”
When it comes to latter, Argawal seems to have got his way, with the Health Ministry recently issuing orders to create 493 additional posts for the authority.
In welcoming the news, the FSSAI also delivered a dig, adding that, up until now, it had been operating with only 356 sanctioned posts with most of its staff on short-term contract or on deputation.
Indeed, the scale of the problem was further highlighted on a trip to Delhi last week, when one official with FSSAI connections told me that inspectors were only stationed at around 10% of the nation’s entry ports for food products.
It is, therefore, clear these new posts will need to filled quickly if the regulator is to create a ‘unifying implementation network’ and to remove the perception of it being a somewhat slightly chaotic, if well-intentioned organisation.
Here's two, recent, high profile incidents as examples.
FSSAI and Argawal have spent much of the year advocating for red labels to be added to high-fat, salt and sugar products.
Regardless of your stance on this tactic, the draft rules had already been sent to health officials for finalisation when Agarwal ruled they would be looked at again after “industry stakeholders expressed concerns.”
It’s highly unlikely that industry would have waited so long to voice its objections, but nevertheless, the regulator has only now “decided to set up a a panel of experts with health and nutrition background to look into the draft regulations.”
Kinder commentators may say that shows the regulator is willing to consult. Others would argue it should have been done far before now.
Then there is the ever-thorny issue of GM, where FSSAI came under heavy criticism when stores in Delhi, Punjab and Gujarat were found to be selling genetically-modified (GM) foods.
According to the Centre for Science and Environment’s (CSE) Pollution Monitoring Laboratory of India, out of 65 products tested, 21 were found to be GM-positive.
Kavitha Kuruganti, co-convenor, on behalf of the Coalition, raged: “The lack of action by FSSAI tells the citizens of this country that, as the food safety regulator, you are knowingly allowing this illegal proliferation of unpermitted and hazardous GM foods in the country,”
Pushed on to the back foot by the outcry, the regulator said it would begin framing new GM rules, but it had already announced in May that the Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations, 2018, would for the first time include mandatory labelling for packaged food items with 5% or more GM ingredients.
Whether this threshold, common in several other APAC countries, will now be lowered amid the criticism remains to be seen, but this situation again creates the perception of an organisation that is not yet fully in control of the nation’s regulatory developments.
No one is doubting that the FSSAI has a tough job, to do, and it can point to clear evidence of success.
Take the nation’s supplements industry, for example, which is broadly supportive of recent regulatory developments incorporating international best practices.
The sector has also praised FSSAI’s willing to engage over health claims and permitted upper levels of active ingredients.
And despite the enormous challenge of trying to implement a nationwide fortification programme, FSSAI can point to the fact that 110 major brands have now backed its initiative by voluntarily fortifying wheat flour, rice, salt, milk or vegetable oil for the open market, providing a welcome addition to government or state-run distribution schemes.
The danger for FSSAI, though, is that the good work risks being drowned out amid the complaints and criticisms.
Argawal, and FSSAI, will be hoping an influx of new talent will help stem that tide.
Gary Scattergood is Editor-in-Chief: APAC of William Reed, the publishers of FoodNavigator-Asia, NutraIngredients-Asia and Cosmetics-Design Asia, and the organisers of Probiota Asia and the NutraIngredients Omega-3 Summit, among other events.